Under Jerusalem: The Buried His­to­ry of the World’s Most Con­test­ed City

  • Review
By – November 8, 2021

Jerusalem is a city of end­less beau­ty and fas­ci­na­tion for res­i­dents, vis­i­tors, and his­to­ri­ans. It is also a polit­i­cal tin­der­box with con­flict­ing eth­nic, reli­gious, and soci­etal claims to its many glo­ries. Archae­ol­o­gy has been a focal point of Jerusalem study as lay­er after lay­er of its his­to­ry is revealed, adding fact, nuance, detail, and dra­ma to its sto­ry. Those who study Jerusalem and its unique his­to­ry, which ranges from pre-Bib­li­cal times until the present day, are at the heart of a tem­pest of claims, coun­ter­claims, and con­tentious polit­i­cal the­ater that seems nev­er to wane.

Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler is an intrigu­ing resource for those inter­est­ed in learn­ing what lies beneath the mod­ern city and how those find­ings affect today’s polit­i­cal and social land­scape. Its sto­ries lie in lay­ers, many of which have been undis­turbed for cen­turies. Lawler presents a cast of char­ac­ters and a pro­gres­sion of events that build one on anoth­er, much like the archae­o­log­i­cal lay­ers them­selves, and the dis­cov­er­ies he shows us beguile and amaze. Each archae­ol­o­gist who arrived, tools in hand and team at the ready, hoped to tease out Jerusalem’s under­ground secrets. Each was a prod­uct of his or her time. Some had an agen­da. Each oper­at­ed against a par­tic­u­lar social and polit­i­cal land­scape. Each unearthed dis­cov­ery was eval­u­at­ed in light of the ethos of its time but each gains deep­er con­text as time goes on.

Some of the per­son­ae who came to explore and left their sto­ries behind them are: French­man Louis-Feli­cien Joseph Caig­nart de Saulcy, con­fi­dant of Napoleon; British car­tog­ra­ph­er Charles Wil­son and his suc­ces­sor, mil­i­tary offi­cer Charles War­ren; Ger­man Protes­tant Con­rad Schick; not­ed archae­ol­o­gist Kath­leen Keny­on who was con­sid­ered the most influ­en­tial woman archae­ol­o­gist of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry — and by some, the century’s great­est field exca­va­tor”; Israeli archae­ol­o­gists Ben­jamin Mazar and his grand­daugh­ter, a promi­nent archae­ol­o­gist in her own right, Eilat Mazar; Israeli archae­ol­o­gists Yigael Yadin and Yigal Shiloh; and many oth­ers. Some of the issues faced by many of them as they searched Jerusalem’s lay­ers includ­ed Israeli and Pales­tin­ian claims to sig­nif­i­cant reli­gious sites and the fre­quent attempts of some groups of rab­bis to block exca­va­tions for fear of dis­turb­ing ancient Jew­ish bones.

As Lawler’s account pro­gress­es, today’s ter­ri­to­r­i­al con­flicts play an increas­ing­ly dis­turb­ing role in the explo­rations of the past. Who has the right to exca­vate where? Will dis­cov­er­ies sup­port one polit­i­cal side and dis­cred­it anoth­er? What roles do the three major reli­gions in the area play and how can archae­o­log­i­cal finds square with reli­gious doc­trines? Can the lessons of the far-off past pro­vide a guide to co-exis­tence in mod­ern times?

Lawler’s prose and the spot­light he shines on the his­to­ry of each era make his account read like an excit­ing adven­ture sto­ry, some parts resem­bling unfold­ing mys­ter­ies, keep­ing the read­er alert and eager­ly turn­ing pages to find out how each inci­dent resolves itself. As long-buried secrets emerge into day­light, events and head­lines of our time acquire new mean­ing, pro­vid­ing a use­ful sense of per­spec­tive. Archae­ol­o­gy feels like a vital, rel­e­vant, far-reach­ing endeav­or shed­ding light on today’s head­lines and tomorrow’s world.

Exten­sive front-and-back mat­ter adds con­text. Includ­ed are numer­ous maps, a long list of sug­gest­ed fur­ther read­ing, detailed notes, an intro­duc­tion, an author’s note, and an epi­logue that sums up Lawler’s find­ings. Those inter­est­ed in Jerusalem both above and below ground will find Under Jerusalem both fas­ci­nat­ing and useful.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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